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Editing Tip: Word Choice Suggestions

  • The English language contains hundreds of thousands of words, each with its own conventions of use
  • Confusion often arises with pairs like ‘affect’/’effect’ and terms like ‘evidence’ or ‘research’ that can be nouns or verbs
  • More information can be found in our Pesky Pairs series

It is estimated that there are over 250,000 words in the English language, so it is inevitable to use some of them “incorrectly” at one time or another. Here are a few words that can be especially tricky to authors whose native language is not English, along with an example of the correct usage.

Common word choice errors

  • ‘Affect’ means “to influence”; ‘effect’ is most commonly used as a noun meaning ‘result.’ (As a verb, ‘effect’ means “to bring about” or “to cause.”)
    • The addition of magnesium greatly affected the reaction speed.
    • We were unable to discern the effect of adding magnesium to the reaction mixture.</em>
  • The word ‘administrated’ is not preferred; use ‘administered’ instead.
    • The drug was administered in three doses.
  • ‘Comprise’ means “to contain”; the whole comprises its parts. The whole can also be composed of its parts, but the parts do NOT comprise the whole.
    • The study sample comprised seventeen patients treated consecutively at Northern Hospital.
  • Remember that ‘data’ is almost always used as a plural noun in the biological sciences and therefore takes a plural verb form. Computer scientists frequently refer to ‘data’ as a singular noun (i.e., the concept of stored information), but this usage is less frequent.
    • Fluorescence data are presented in Table 2.
  • ‘Evidence’ cannot be pluralized as a noun. That is, there cannot be multiple evidences supporting a conclusion. ‘Evidence’ is also a verb (meaning “to show”), but the verb is rarely used in scientific writing.
    • We will present multiple lines of evidence that support our assertion.
  • ‘Less’ should be used with uncountable quantities (mass nouns), as in “less rain” or “less power”. ‘Fewer’ is used with countable things (count nouns) as in “fewer mice” or “fewer pages”. (See our article on less vs. fewer for more examples and explanation.)
  • ‘Research’ cannot be pluralized as a noun (i.e., you cannot say “several researches show…”). However, it is appropriate to use ‘researches’ as a verb.
    • Many research papers report similar results.
    • The Anderson lab researches biofilm formation.</em>
  • Respectively’ can only be used when two parallel lists are present in one sentence; it does not mean ‘individually.’
    • The cat and dog were 7 and 14 years old, respectively.
  • The past participle of “to show” is ‘shown.’
    • The results are shown in Figure 1. (NOT “are showed”)
    • This connection has been shown in the past. (NOT “has been showed”)
  • Simply refer to “Student’s t-test,” not “the Student’s t-test” or “a Student’s t-test.” (See our article on eponyms for more information.)
    • Student’s t-test was used to determine statistical differences in distributions.

For more information on other tricky English terms, please see our Pesky Pairs series, featuring combinations like comprised/composed, less/fewer, and e.g./i.e.

We hope that these suggestions help you choose the right terms when writing your next manuscript! If you have questions about other words, please contact us.

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